A 5.40am wake up call is a hard task at the best of times let alone on a Sunday morning after a long, tiring first 6 day week back at work after the Christmas period. The problem is I do it all out of my own choice and I love it. A super early alarm can mean only one thing when it comes to running, it must be a race of the marathon distance, or a little further in today’s case.
I woke up and got ready, rummaging around for suitable kit and supplies in complete darkness. I couldn’t quite decide which kit would be appropriate for a multi terrain race of this distance. After some initial uncertainty I decided on wearing a Camelback allowing me to carry water and most importantly my phone, should I get lost, Clare enter early labour or just simply if I had endured enough. I arrived at the village hall with just minutes to spare, registering and getting my instructions for the task ahead. Before I could relax too much I was poked in the back by my own sharp running spikes, in a morning daze, at first I thought nothing of it but then it occurred to me that my trail shoes shouldn’t be sharp. I opened the bag and low and behold I had picked up my racing spikes! Yes we were heading off road but I’m not sure 50 kilometres in spikes would be very forgiving on my feet. I left my bag with the ever helpful Emily Penkett before quickly dashing to my car to swap bags. If there’s anything to be learnt from reading my blog, is to always get your kit ready the night before an event. Especially if it’s going to be an early alarm in order to make it to race start in time.
All that said I made it onto the coach on time and even managed to bag a seat alongside Springfield’s Alex Manton. Alex having already raced the day before and with the niggles that I had been carrying that led to me limping up and down steps at Wembley the day before, we both agreed that today was all about distance rather than time or placing. I quickly scanned the instructions when my eye caught Mile 29 “Bear right to Aythorpe Roding village hall” I was quite excited when I first read it, fully aware that my parents were in the process of moving into a bungalow just metres from the hall. I messaged them to let them know I would be passing and that I could do with a little cheer, especially after 29 miles.
The 45 minute coach journey allowed for some time to relax after a self inflicted hectic morning and also allowed me and Alex to talk about all things running and the race ahead. As far as the trail was concerned we were both adamant that we would be taking it easy and stopping at all checkpoints for refreshments etc and concentrating on enjoying a nice relaxed run through Hertfordshire and Essex countryside.
We arrived at Cold Christmas and after a short briefing we were sent on our way! Where we were true to our words…… well sort of! The race start was slow, fully expected from a race of this distance but I mean really slow, with most likely the slowest mile of my race I reluctantly hit the front turning round every hundred metres to check what was going on behind and if Alex was going to join me? I wanted to run together but I couldn’t run much slower so to me, fully aware of his ability it was a sign that Alex would prefer to run on his own so I decided to just continue and if he wanted I’m sure he would catch me up!
The first section of the race was 9 miles to Much Hadham village hall. Unusually for me I managed to navigate my way without predicament, which is more credit to the race organisers and their narrative than my own skills. The pace was easy but I couldn’t help think that I might have been naive and run slightly too quick even though it felt like a very comfortable pace. Either way I wasn’t too concerned I had enjoyed every minute of the run so far so whatever happened from now on in I wouldn’t regret anything. The route passed some familiar sights including Ash Valley Golf club, a place where I had spent a bit of time when I was much younger trying to hit a ball in hole with a stick. Greeted by two friendly faces including Springfield’s Kevin Wright, the first checkpoint was a welcome sight however it had come around a bit too early as I wasn’t really ready to stop. Having already consumed a SiS energy gel a couple of miles previously I decided not to hang around too long at the checkpoint. After a brief chat, sip of water and a single Jaffa cake I was back on my way, heading in the right direction thanks to Kev.
I couldn’t wait to get back on the move I was thoroughly enjoying the run. My only concern was knowing that heading east from Much Hadham I was going to have to do some climbing at some stage but at the pace I was running I wasn’t too worried. Making my way along the high street looking for the next directory (no not a clothing catalogue) The inclusion of footpath numbers when possible was brilliant, I understand part of the challenge of trails is following instructions but it was reassuring knowing you were on the right path, especially when there multiple signs within a short period. Looking for a certain footpath (Footpath 25) allowed me to pass a sign pointing in the right direction just before the correct path. Just the inclusion of a simple number on the instructions made the race so much easier, but more importantly, enjoyable from my own personal perspective.
Miles 10 and 11, where quite eventful providing plenty of distractions to the running itself. Firstly crossing a ford which saw my feet fully submerged in water, not ideal having soaked feet at such an early stage of the race but it was all part of the fun. Mile 11 also saw me make my first mistake of the race with the instructions informing runners to take a path on left climbing uphill through the wood. At such an early stage of the race I was still very vigilant and right on queue I saw a distinctive path on the left fitting the narrative instructions however a wired fence lay between me and the path so after a brief hesitation I continued along dismissing the possibility of it being the right way. After proceeding a bit further and reading ahead on the instructions to try to gauge if I had gone wrong, I discovered my thumb had been hiding the clear instruction informing runners to pass under a wire fence, Retracing my steps I corrected my error before continuing on route across fields passing some impressive Henry Moore sculptures. Something that I really enjoy about running off road is the impressive sights and scenery that you come across, that are easily bypassed and missed in the modern day by our selected modes of transport. Having lived in the surrounding areas for the best part of 20 years, amazingly this was the first time I had ever come across the sculpture park.
The route passed through Bishop’s Stortford taking in some of my old running routes before heading out along segments of the Bishop’s Stortford cross country course and eventually heading into the most familiar running route of all, Hatfield Forest. Now following routes I have become accustomed to in recent times I could relax for a few miles, allowing my mind to rest a little not having to navigate. I decided to swing my camelback round and grab my phone. Calling Clare to see if she wanted to meet me briefly at the next checkpoint “Station House” which was less than a mile from my front door. Initially concerned for my well being I quickly reassured her that the reason for the call was merely for a bit of company, after having spent the last 22 miles running solo. As the platform came into view, so did Clare. I popped into the checkpoint calling out my number and grabbing some flapjack and a cup of water. It was nice to see her, all be it briefly, and have a little chat about our very contrasting mornings.
With just 4 miles to go until covering the marathon distance I knew I was about to enter the unknown. 2 years ago, Station House was the point when the group of 4 leaders split up as the trail became a race and I was left to navigate the final few miles solo and ended up with me getting quite a bit lost, clocking a total of 28.8 miles and finishing in 3rd place overall (Cold Christmas 2016 – Strava/Results)
This year though I was more switched on and alert, having to navigate solo from the very start. I continued to navigate my way to the next checkpoint as fatigue started to set in. The glorious winters day was certainly helping with the mental challenge of running for such a long period. My main focus now was keeping and eye out for the windmill that would be visible at any moment I was sure, after a number of fields that were heavy going with tired legs the windmill finally came into view up ahead.
As I made my way towards the foot of the mill, I couldn’t help but take glances to my left at my parents new property. I couldn’t see them in the garden nor on the route to cheer me on which was a little bit of an anti climax after so many miles alone. The final checkpoint was held in the Aythorpe Roding village hall where once again I was greeted with a warm reception once more, however I decided to only stop for a couple of minutes giving my number in return for some food and water before leaving the hall to embark on the final 5 kilometres to High Easter.
I hadn’t wasted much time once more in the checkpoint and as I followed the instructions to cross road opposite Gunners Green, I couldn’t help myself but turn in the opposite direction and quickly pop in to see my parents. I ran around the back of the house and there they both were setting up the pond oblivious to me and the race. After the briefest of chats I was soon back on my way and back following the instructions on route.
The final 3 miles were surprisingly tough and as always with longer events felt a lot further than just 3 miles. Not that pace had been a concern at any part of the race, it was now not even a consideration the only focus other than navigation was to keep moving and not walk, even though it was incredibly tempting. Thankfully I managed to navigate the final part of instructions without fault and keep my legs moving towards, what a first seemed like a mirage, a group of spectators including Emily Penkett and John Hardy. Unfortunately the instructions and footpath didn’t head directly towards them so after a short unwanted detour I finally did pass the group and of course John’s camera!
The village hall was a welcome site and it was a relief to call out my race number for a final time. I had finished in first place completing the off road 50 kilometres including all checkpoints and stops in 4:08:55, much to my surprise 45 minutes ahead of second place.
The trail was unsurprisingly well organised and thoroughly enjoyable. As always with long narrative trails the post race hospitality was second to none and although there were no Jacket Potatoes on offer a wide spread of food was. I enjoyed a warm soup and bread roll and was given a nice race commemorative drawstring bag. I can’t wait for 2020 when I can take on the same event but different course for the third successive time.
Energy Gels used – SiS Go energy + Caffeine
Kit – Camelback Octane, Underarmour compression top & shorts, Asics NYC marathon gloves, Asics 5″ shorts, Asics compression running socks & Haglofs Gram GTX Shoes